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It’s scary when strangers on the internet come after you. Last month, my band played a show at Rhizome DC, a nonprofit community space in Takoma housed in a cozy standalone farmhouse that frequently hosts experimental concerts, transgressive film screenings, and music workshops. Hours before the show, a friend called me with a warning.
“Did you know that your show is being targeted on 4Chan?” he said. “There’s a thread on an alt-right channel to investigate different DIY venues in D.C., and they specifically list your show tonight.”
Sure enough, there it was:
“Shady-sounding places in DC with ALL AGES shows happening THIS WEEKEND … Rhizome. Investigate, gather evidence, report.”
Normally, this kind of internet chatter would rarely be taken seriously in D.C.’s music community. But after the Dec. 2 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, California, that killed 36 people, and the Dec. 4 shooting at Comet Ping Pong, in which 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch drove from North Carolina to “self-investigate” so-called Pizzagate, it’s irresponsible to take any of these threats lightly. Both of these incidents have motivated alt-right trolls on the darkest corners of the internet to target DIY spaces across the country, trying to get them shut down by authorities, or worse.
“These places are open hotbeds of liberal radicalism and degeneracy and now YOU can stop them by reporting all such places you may be or may become aware of to the authorities, specifically the local fire marshel [sic],” read a comment on one of the original 4Chan threads, which has since been archived.
Another commenter called for the targeting of people in DIY communities as if they were enemies of war: “Watch them and follow them to their hives. Infiltrate social circles, go to parties/events, record evidence, and report it. We’ve got them on the run but now we must crush their nests before they can regroup! MAGA my brothers and happy hunting!”
Ultimately, nothing happened at Rhizome, and the show was a success. Dozens of people came to enjoy an evening of experimental music in one of D.C.’s best house venues. Neither the police nor the fire marshall were called to shut down the show. No one with any nefarious agenda showed up. There wasn’t a shred of negative energy felt the entire night.
Still, it was hard to ignore the underlying fear and anxiety these internet threats created. Fear and anxiety that, a month later, still lingers among underground music communities in the D.C. area and nationwide. As a result, many house venues and promoters have questioned whether to keep hosting shows at all.
“We definitely had some conversations about what to do,” says Steve Korn, one of the founding board members of Rhizome. “It was weird, seeing our name on these message boards. Comet Ping Pong made it more disturbing than it would be.”
Korn and the rest of the volunteers that make up the Rhizome board eventually decided to carry on with business as usual. Korn says that he thinks the internet chatter about Rhizome and D.C.’s house venues in general has died down, but there’s still an enduring, if minor, concern. “We’re just going to keep doing what we do,” he says. “But it’s obviously important to us that our space is safe for the people who come here.”
Rhizome operates differently from most DIY venues in D.C. It’s technically a house, but no one lives there. It’s zoned for commercial use (before Rhizome, the house was a salon called Denita’s Hair & Nails) and is funded by donations and arts grants.
Bathtub Republic, a house venue in Northeast D.C. where Leah Gage lives and produces shows with her roommates, is an actual home. Gage, who also performs in the bands BRNDA, Stronger Sex, and The North Country, says that although her address “was posted a few times on a couple of 4Chan and reddit threads,” they haven’t experienced any trouble from alt-right trolls. But the chatter has nonetheless forced them to be extra vigilant.
“We talked as a house … and we decided to go on as normal, but just be sort of extra careful not to break any rules,” Gage says. Among those rules: ensuring that all shows end before the local noise ordinance goes into effect at 10 p.m.
Gage also says they’re trying to stay off the radar more than they usually would. “The main thing is that we’re not publishing our address,” she says. “Most people that know us know where we are. I’ve let all of our performers know that are coming to play … don’t put our address on any promotional materials. We’re being extra careful. It’s a shame to feel that you’re opening up your house to the public in a communal way and to have this fear attached to it now.”
Another resident at a different DIY house in D.C. who wished to remain anonymous told me that a show at his house mentioned in the same thread as my show was reported to the fire marshall in attempts to get it shut down. He says the fire marshall said the complaints were unfounded and had no intention of shutting down shows at the house, since no rules were broken. The show went on as planned, but like Bathtub Republic, the residents are extra vigilant when releasing information about upcoming shows online.
In the wake of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, there’s been a rash of raids and evictions of similar warehouses and DIY spaces across the country. In Nashville, Queen Ave, Drkmttr, and The Glass Mènage were all shut down by the city’s fire marshall. In Baltimore, the cherished DIY arts space Bell Foundry shut down last month. Its residents were evicted and the building was condemned.
The Ghost Ship tragedy was a sobering wake-up call for DIY spots across the country to make sure that they’re up to code so that a similar disaster won’t happen, but the reality is that it’s not so easy for these places to pay to make that happen. As a result, these spaces are being hastily, and often violently, closed—with residents evicted at a moment’s notice—instead of working with the city to make the structures safer.
In Seattle, the city’s arts commission published an open letter to the mayor, calling on him to work to help bring these places up to code, citing the socio-economic climate that leads people to live in nontraditional spaces.
“[F]or many who inhabit noncompliant spaces, it is not a choice to inhabit or program unsafe space, but a reality driven by economic circumstance,” the letter reads. “To think of this as a choice is a mistake allowed by economic privilege. While many would indeed choose to live, work, and gather in non-traditional venues regardless of their financial situations, it is the safety component that is too often inhibited by limited access to money.”
“It’s concerning that these fascists and these alt-right assholes are preying on these scenes,” says Hasan A, a DIY promoter who books punk and metal shows in D.C. and Baltimore. “It really sucks that it takes the tragedy in Oakland as a wake-up call to get these spaces up to code. Because a lot of these spaces thought, ‘Oh, this could’ve been us.’”